Following a young teenager named Miles Morales through the streets of Brooklyn might be the happiest I’ve been in a theater in years. As Morales (voiced by Shameek Moore) wanders the streets, he throws up his art on the walls. He tags a mailbox, a street sign, and walls before tumbling into the streets. As a cop pulls up, the lights flip on and Miles realizes he’s in trouble. Not for the stickers though. His dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is the cop, and will now be driving him to school. The two chat about their Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), Miles wishing he didn’t have to go to the preppy science school, and a superhero named Spider-Man (Chris Pine) that may be taking the vigilante thing too far.
When we join Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, we get a look at what it means to live in a world with the titular hero. Yet Miles, a young mixed raced prodigy, has his own things to worry about. What separates Spider-Verse from many of the Spider-Man stories that have come before is our extended time with a non-Spidey protagonist. Miles is undeniably cool, rocking sneakers, working on his street-art, and struggling to sing along to songs he loves. His Brooklyn neighborhood comes alive, and as he walks past his old school, you see him shine. This kid is something special, far before a radioactive spider bites his hand.
That’s right, this is not your Peter Parker origin story. Welcome to the new Miles Morales led Spider-Man. After Peter Parker tragically passes in a science explosion, Miles vows to become the new Spidey. He’s got the powers, but trips over himself time and time again. Sadly, he’s actively bad at being Spider-Man. One night he visits the grave of Parker, going to apologize for his inept skills, only to come face-to-face with a new, chubby, and brown haired version of the man. Enter Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a different version of Spider-Man from an alternate universe. Everything about his world is similar, but nothing is quite the same. Suddenly, the two become three when Spider-Girl Gwen Stacey (Hailee Steinfeld) joins the trio and it only gets weirder from there. Add one black and white Noir Spider-Man (Nicolas Cage), one anime science prodigy Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and a cartoon character Spider-Hamm (John Mulaney) and the universe will never be the same.
The voice cast absolutely balls out, led by Moore’s impressive vocal performance. He adds nuance to the line readings, and you can feel Miles’ struggles from scene to scene. He’s a young kid who wants to be confident and have game. Yet he’s not quite ready to talk to girls, let alone fight giant monster creatures. He sells the movie time and time again. Steinfeld delivers a subtle performance that has a lot of layers coursing through her lines. She’s probably the most competent Spidey, and that seasoning makes her the most distant at times.
Steinfeld brings that out in her performance, and that’s tough to sell in animation. Johnson might be the most surprisingly nuanced character, who really struggles as a mentor. He’s the snappy and quick witted Parker we’re used to, but it’s clear he’s dealing with his own emotional struggles. It’s a rather depressing look at one of the big heroes of the Marvel continuity, and Johnson imbues a melancholy to his vocals that remind you this particular version is not just happy-go-lucky.
The story of Spider-Verse will take you on an emotional trip that no other animated films have really brought to the table this year. Frankly, few films have dealt with the emotional turns this movie tries to navigate. Part of the brilliance of meeting Miles at his most comfortable is we then understand how tough it must be for him. The street side of Miles is never a question. He has an amazing relationship with his Uncle, but because Aaron’s been labeled sketchy by his Dad, Miles and his father feel distant. Miles showcases a love for street art, and he is extremely sincere with Peter B. and Gwen when he’s give the opportunity. He wants to step up and be a hero so bad. So why is it not working out?
Bringing this story to life is the most beautiful animation of the year. The streets fizzle and crackle, both literally due to the multi-verse implosion, and figuratively with the culture that surrounds each frame. The director team of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman make every moment feel real, yet different. It’s simple touches, like a giant poster of Chance the Rapper’s “Color Book” album cover, with Chance wearing a 4 instead of 3 cap. The police are PDNY. Every ad in Time’s Square is a little off (and Nick Kroll and Seth Rogen are leading films). The shifts are minor, but help transport you at the same time. The action set pieces are inspired and complicated as hell. Yet through it all, it will feel like you’re reading a comic book (they even comic book gradient). It’s the most creative Spider-Man and features many of the best shots of the year. This should be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Then there’s the screenplay from Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The two guys responsible for The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street films showcase an encyclopedic knowledge of the worlds of Spider-Man. By focusing on Miles, they introduce us to a new and fun world. Yet it’s his relationships with Peter and Gwen that justify the film. Lord & Miller fleshed out every character with backstories, character motivations, and skill-sets. That includes our big bad Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), and even a new Aunt May (Lily Tomlin). No one is simply here as window dressing, and everyone contributes meaningful heart to the story. Oh, and in case have missed a Lord & Miller film, they’re really funny. They blend meta-humor with character driven and visual comedy to hit something for everyone. Yet that humor builds characters, and endears you to characters who will have some of the most nuanced conversations about trauma you’ll ever seen on film. Emotion is stitched throughout this film, and some of the lines they write will cause the tears to flow. It’s that emotion that ultimately lifts to the best of year conversation.
Not only is “Spider-Verse” clearly the best animated feature of the year, it is one of the best movies of the year period. It’s a crazy visual experiment that brings an actual comic book to life. Yet most important of all, it tells us that someone special can come from anywhere. We don’t have to be born with superpowers, or even have them at all. It’s about the drive to do good, and no Spider-Man film or superhero story to date has more intimately communicated that feeling. If you love Spider-Man, or hate Spider-Man, or find him mildly annoying, this will still appeal to you. Spider-Man is now for everybody.